On May 6, 1863, Solomon Linnell II and Alfred Rogers spotted the ribs of a ship’s hull poking through tidal flats at Nauset Beach on Cape Cod.
A recent storm had caused the sands to shift, revealing the shipwreck with its timbers jutting skyward like skeletal fingers reaching out from a long-forgotten grave. Linnell and Rogers were excited by their find. On the same day that Union forces were limping away from a bloody beating by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops 600 miles away at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, they believed they had located the “Holy Grail” of Pilgrim-era artifacts: the Sparrow-Hawk, an English ship that had run aground in 1626.
A century and a half later, we still don’t know for certain whether they were right. Nothing was ever found identifying the shipwreck’s provenance. Not even the boat’s real name is known; Sparrow-Hawk is what the discoverers dubbed the 1626 ship they thought they’d found.
But new research by scientists and historians indicates that the wreck just might be the fabled Pilgrim ship. That would make it the only surviving vessel that crossed the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Great Puritan Migration.
“These timbers are twisted and gnarly dinosaur bones that hold clues,” said Donna Curtin, executive director of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass., which owns the shipwreck and recently helped examine the remains. “An international team of maritime archaeology experts examined them to enable us to better understand the oldest known shipwreck of English Colonial America, adding new details to the compelling story of Plymouth Colony’s founding and the arrival of the European settlers in New England 400 years ago. They conform closely with the historical account.”
In 1626, a small ship – the one Linnell and Rogers would later call the Sparrow-Hawk – loaded with English settlers and Irish servants ran aground during a storm at the beach on Cape Cod. The group of 25 travelers was rescued by English-speaking indigenous members of the Nauset tribe, who sent word to the Pilgrim settlement in the Plymouth Colony, about 50 miles away, about the shipwreck.
Plymouth Gov. John Bradford wrote about the event in his history of the first permanent English settlement in North America. He ordered a rescue mission to bring the stranded settlers and their supplies to Plimoth Plantation.
As Bradford later wrote, a second “violent storm arose, the [Sparrow-Hawk] was again driven on shore, and so beatten and shaken as she was now wholy unfitte to goe to sea.” As a result, the vessel was abandoned to be consumed by surf and sand.
Lost to time for nearly 160 years, the ship reappeared briefly in 1782. It was quickly covered again by treacherous tides and shifting sands, which preserved the remains until Linnell and Rogers happened upon the beach 81 years later.
Shortly after its rediscovery in 1863, Cape Cod native Benjamin Drew saw the wreck on the beach in Chatham, Mass., before it was removed. He shared his excitement of the find in a pamphlet published in 1865:
“As I stood upon the shore, surveying with my friend the remains of the vessel which crossed the ocean two hundred and forty years ago, imagination brought vividly before me the scenes of that early voyage, the wrecking of the ship, and the providential escape of the passengers and crew. Two hundred and forty years! Yes, nearly that long period had elapsed from the time of its protracted and unsuccessful battling with the elements, and its subsequent submergence in these sands of Nauset …”
The remnants of the ship were collected and placed on Boston Common by Leander Crosby of Orleans, Mass., for viewing in 1865. A public weary of carnage from the recently ended Civil War gathered in droves to see this symbol of New England’s heritage.
In 1889, the shipwreck became part of the collection at Pilgrim Hall Museum, where it was displayed and identified as the remains of the 1626 vessel.
Over the years, marine historians studying the 109 pieces of wood determined the ship was about 40 feet long with a displacement of about 36 tons – tiny compared to the Mayflower, the ship that brought the Pilgrims to the New World in 1620, which was thought to be about 90 feet long and displacing about 180 tons. Some experts have identified Sparrow-Hawk as a two-masted pinnace, a small single-decked, square-sterned sailing ship.
However, nagging doubt lingered. Could the wreck be another vessel, perhaps dating to a different time period? The chances seemed likely. With more than 1,000 wrecks located just off its shoals and shores, Cape Cod is often referred to as an “ocean graveyard” of ships.
In 2018, museum trustee Calvin Mires, a research associate at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Mass., realized that technology might be able to help determine whether it was in fact the ship that foundered on Cape Cod nearly four centuries ago.
Mires teamed with Aoife Daly, an expert in dendrochronology – a scientific method of dating trees and timbers – and Fred Hocker, an authority on 17th-century ship construction and seafaring, to conduct the first-ever scientific study of the Sparrow-Hawk. The three had worked together in 2011 on the Vasa, a Swedish warship that sank in Stockholm Harbor in 1628.
“We were looking at ways to document and provide archaeological evidence about the historical and chronological validity that the timbers were actually from the 17th century,” Mires said in an email.
With all the pieces laid out on the floor of Pilgrim Hall Museum, the team set to work. Hocker carefully scrutinized the construction and style of craft to determine whether it matched known manufacturing techniques of the period.
Daly examined tree-ring patterns on the wood and compared her findings with databases of similar impressions across Europe and North America. She also took core samples to check against wood known to have been used in shipbuilding 400 years ago.
“Tree rings can tell you a lot about how the trees grew and what the weather conditions were like at the time,” Daly said. “They show the impact of drought, floods, bugs, fires and more. Each one is like a fingerprint of what happened. Once we do carbon dating, we can check the databases for similar patterns in other trees to establish location.”
After four years of intense scrutiny and analysis, the team determined there was a match. They concluded the wood – mostly oak and elm – came from Great Britain around the time the Sparrow-Hawk would have been built. The results of the study were published March 11 in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
In addition to confirmation by dendrochronology, one of the wooden pieces proved to be part of a bilge pump, similar in shape and size to an iron version used on board the Swedish ship.
“The pump box was very cracked and distorted but looked very much like the ones we have on Vasa,” Hocker said, adding, “Nothing in the construction is out of place in a vessel from 1626. It has all of the features I would consider typical for a vessel of this size.”
The researchers plan to scan the timbers in hopes of creating a 3D model of what the ship might have looked like when it sailed the waters off Cape Cod.
“As a nearly 400-year-old artifact, it is a tie to the earliest parts of America’s colonial history,” Mires said.
For Pilgrim Hall Museum, showing that the shipwreck has a connection to the first settlers of the Plymouth Colony is a dream of unimaginable proportions.
“I am just over the top about this news,” Curtin said. “We cannot say with 100% certainty that this is the Sparrow-Hawk, but we can say with much more confidence than ever before that what we have is compatible with the story in Gov. Bradford’s journal.”
The museum is gearing up for a major exhibition of the weathered and broken planks and board to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the shipwreck in 2026. In the meantime, Curtin needs to figure out how to satisfy curious tourists who heard about the study’s finding and want to view the Sparrow-Hawk, which is currently in storage.
“People are going to want to see it,” she said.